October 1999

Ludwig Bemelmans

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Madeline: Deep in the heart of Texas Madeline turns 60 this year, and doesn’t look a day over six. Ludwig Bemelmans’s grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, took time to answer a few questions about completing one of his grandfather’s manuscripts, debuting this month as Madeline in America.

BookPage: Why this book? Why now? John Bemelmans Marciano: More than anything, I want to reintroduce my grandfather’s non-Madeline books to his fans, the majority of whom weren’t alive when those books were in print. BP: How did Madeline’s Christmas in Texas, a Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog, evolve into Madeline in America, a children’s book? JBM: Madeline’s Christmas in Texas originally appeared as a 1955 promotion for Neiman-Marcus. Every day from Thanksgiving to Christmas, a different line of verse appeared in the Dallas and Houston papers in the form of an ad, usually accompanied by a small ink drawing. The verse and 15 drawings were made into a booklet, which Neiman-Marcus gave away. The store windows were done in a Madeline theme, and my grandfather did the cover for their catalog.

My grandfather had decided to turn the story into a full-length book, to be called Madeline’s Christmas. However, he began work on a different idea with the same title, and never finished either. A version of the second idea was published as Madeline’s Christmas long after his death, so to avoid confusion, the title of this one was changed.

BP: Why did you decide to include other tales with the book instead of publishing them separately? JBM: To me, the other stories are the most important part of the collection. Originally, we had planned on publishing the short Neiman-Marcus version, which would have never stood on its own, but then I came across two dummy books that my grandfather had put together, and we suddenly had a book-length story.

BP: For the first time ever, Madeline’s last name is revealed in this book. Was this worked out during editing, or was it part of the original text? JBM: The lines Including Mlle. Madeline Fogg and Genevieve her dog appeared in the original gift book, and I assume my grandfather came up with the name for the sake of the rhyme.

The text of the dummy books was used wherever possible. Certain things had to be cut a scene involving store detectives and a gun, for instance. Other things had to be tightened up; my grandfather would go in a dozen different directions in the early drafts of his stories, and then focus on the essentials in later stages.

Where the verse from the dummy didn’t work, I went back to one of the earlier versions or his notes to try to find an alternative. In a couple of cases, we made stuff up.

As for the pictures, most of what I had to work with were rough pencil sketches depicting action and gestures. Fortunately, the gesture is the inspiration, so the hard work was done. As for turning gestures into paintings, I pored over the original books, trying to understand my grandfather’s visual language. I never copied details my biggest fear was of turning the book into a pastiche. BP: Why did you decide to pick up where your grandfather left off? JBM: When I was two, I covered my walls with crayon swirls, and one of my first memories is getting into trouble for it. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and an artist and have worked most of my life at it. As for the rest of the family, my mother was an only child, and I have two brothers, one of whom is an Internet entrepreneur and the other a psychology professor.

In general, I think my family is happier with the finished product than I am. My mother occasionally gets confused as to which paintings are mine and which are her father’s.

BP: Is it true that one of the other stories in the book, Sunshine, was originally intended to be a musical starring Frank Sinatra? JBM: My grandfather took an eight-year break from children’s books after Rosebud was published in 1942. He focused on his novels and writing screenplays he was with MGM for a time. He met Frank Sinatra somewhere during this period and was taken with him. He had an idea for a musical that would star Sinatra and take place in my grandfather’s New York neighborhood, Gramercy Park. My guess is that my grandfather realized the story was better suited for a children’s book than Sinatra, and I’m sure he saw the opportunity to do for New York what he had done for Paris in Madeline.

BP: What sources/resources did your grandfather use to create his characters and their adventures? Do you find yourself using the same, or different methods? JBM: My grandfather drew on his life for his characters, and on his travels for his stories. One of the reasons he did Madeline in London is because he wanted the opportunity to live there and paint the city; the same with Madeline and the Gypsies and the south of France. He followed gypsy circuses on and off for two years researching the book. It’s my guess that one of the reasons he abandoned the Texas story is that he didn’t want to spend all that time there. He suffered terribly from the heat.

I went down and retraced my grandfather’s footsteps from Dallas to San Antonio through the Hill Country and down to King Ranch. I sketched and painted, took roll after roll of film, and bought postcards and knick-knacks and books generally, anything I could do to get the details right. My grandfather had given little indication of what the backgrounds were to be, so I painted the monuments and landscapes of the state that most interested me. In the spirit of the Madeline books and of Sunshine, the locations are listed by page number.

BP: What does the future hold for Madeline, as well as yourself? JBM: Unless I find another one of my grandfather’s manuscripts, there won’t be any more full-length books in Madeline’s future. There are, thankfully, other stories my grandfather wrote but only sketched, three or four of which I hope to illustrate, including Silly Willy. My grandfather based the story on a comic strip he did in the ’30s, and he was working on it when he came up with the inspiration for Madeline. I love it and have been working on the paintings for two years. In addition, I’m in the middle of illustrating a children’s book I’ve written, and I’m trying to finish a novel.

Get the Book

Madeline in America

Madeline in America

By Ludwig Bemelmans
Arthur A. Levine
ISBN 9780590039109

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